How Obama spread his net far and wide

 

The president-elect changed the way elections are run by harnessing the power of the web to build up a vast online community of support, writes Karlin Lillington

NO WONDER US president-elect Barack Obama got the web, and its most cutting-edge social networking technologies, so very, very right.

To create his campaign powerhouse, Barackobama.com, the politician initially sought advice from net pioneer and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, the man who created the first web browser.

Then, he had the man who co-founded the massively popular profile site Facebook, Chris Hughes, build the part of the website that pulls together many of the networking technologies, my.barackobama.com (MyBO).

Andreessen told the New York Timesthis week: "Other politicians I have met with are always impressed by the web and surprised by what it could do, but their interest sort of ended in how much money you could raise. [Obama] was the first politician I dealt with who understood that the technology was a given and that it could be used in new ways."

These ways are easy to count. Most famously, Obama used the web to raise a formidable war chest of cash donations, many of which were small sums from individuals used to buying online. Democrats typically lag their Republican counterparts when it comes to finances for presidential campaigns; this time, Obama raised so much cash he was able to take the unusual step of refusing public funding.

The campaign also cleverly used one of the internet's simplest connecting tools - e-mail - to stay in touch with anyone who registered on the Obama website, bought an item in the Obama store (yes, there's an online store for hats, T-shirts and other items), or donated to the campaign.

Prominent on the website homepage is BarackTV, the campaign's YouTube video channel. During the election, the Obama campaign uploaded 1,800 videos, five times as many as the McCain camp. Obama also made active use of Twitter, a popular networking tool that lets users send short text messages, or 'tweets', to users' mobile phones.

Sound complicated? The Obama campaign made it easy. Just click through to the "Obama Mobile" section from the homepage, and follow the simple directions. Or you could download the Obama iPhone application. Or one of 12 Obama ringtones.

Want more? You could read the daily Obama blog, or create your own in your my.barackobama.com space.

In the "Obama Everywhere" section, there are links to 18 separate social networking sites and tools, including Facebook and MySpace profile sites, YouTube, picture site Flickr, business network site LinkedIn, bookmarking site Digg, and community networks BlackPlanet, AsianAve and Faithbase.

Users could upload their personal contacts to the site, and send group e-mails to get out the vote. Or they could download a script and, based on their address, get a calling list for their neighbourhood.

The president-elect shows every sign of continuing to use his vast internet community of support, with regular e-mails emanating from Barackobama.com, and a new website for the transition period, www.change.gov, just launched.

"It's not just the technology on its own that won the election. It's a means of communication," says Séamus Mulconry, a consultant with Edelman Communications and former technology specialist with Accenture who also did a stint as head of policy for the Progressive Democrats.

"Politics is a heart, not a head business. Any way you can engage emotionally with people is very powerful. And the web allows you to use music, video and images, and create communities to make that emotional connection."

New technologies such as video "allow you to break out of soundbites, too", he says. "Since at least the Nixon campaign, political campaigns have been defined by the tight soundbite. Oratory has been dead in the electronic age, but YouTube brought it back."

Technology and heavy use of social networking technologies also gave the Obama campaign "a victory over the vast geography of the US", says solicitor Simon McGarr, who set up the VoteTube.org website during the last Irish general election to showcase political videos and encourage their creation.

"For Obama, the issue was to find people to come into the system and become door-knockers."

Obama harnessed people who had not in the past joined a political campaign. He connected people, created communities and give them meaningful jobs to do.

The idea wasn't entirely new. Howard Dean, a candidate in the previous US presidential campaign, first raised money through small donations and galvanised supporters, especially the youth vote, by using the web. The difference, says McGarr, is that Dean wasn't Obama. No matter how innovative and cleverly used, technology alone cannot elect a candidate.

"It's not really about the technology," agrees Mulconry. With Obama, he says, "the product was superb - a charismatic candidate allied to idealism". But, he adds, technology allowed Obama to "reach audiences that are very hard to reach", including ethnic communities and the youth vote.

Could the same tactics be used in Ireland? "Definitely," says Mulconry. "You can't take what Obama did and apply it directly here, but you can take elements and they're very powerful."

In particular, he points to online fundraising, e-mail, videos and social networking sites as possible tools for Irish politicians.

McGarr believes a major difference between the US and Irish political systems is that, in Ireland, parties and campaigns are tightly controlled by a central office. "The party machine controls the message here, whereas the Obama campaign basically turned every supporter into an independent agent running a small campaign."

Using networking technologies in the way the Obama campaign did "is an insurgent strategy to try and gather up an audience. The price of the strategy is you must let go of the control."

So, McGarr laughs, don't expect to see Fianna Fáil doing an Obama anytime soon. But do expect to YouTube your way through the next general election.